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Kenan Rahmani is a law student at the University of Notre Dame in the U.S. state of Indiana. He shared with us that he has traveled to Syria to assist an activist network with  English-language media relations. He says he recently returned again to Syria with a small group of expatriates from the Syrian American Council to asses conditions in the war-torn Aleppo region. He spent the first years of his life in Damascus and regularly visited his homeland during summers while growing up in Indianapolis. Read his account further below.

Middle East Voices’ “Syria Witness” series features personal accounts by citizen-journalists inside Syria about the grim challenges of survival in a war zone. These activists are often the only available street-level information source about life in a country whose government restricts independent reporting.

With Syrian expatriates having begun to enter areas of Syria now under rebel control, we have expanded the series to include their accounts.

Syria Witness reports cannot be independently verified and, for their personal safety, some contributors do not use their real names. Accounts may be edited for reasons of clarity and style, but no changes to content are made.

By Kenan Rahmani

I was in the town of Tel Rifaat a few weeks ago when one of the Syrian government’s Sukhoi fighter jets passed above our heads dropping a TNT barrel bomb just a few blocks from where I stood. That bomb leveled four homes and killed 18 people.

“Damascus had always shared the beautiful smell of her jasmine blossoms with an omnipresent vibe of the regime’s tyranny. In every public place were the posters of Assad, his eyes always staring at me…” – Kenan Rahmani

Despite the fact that dozens were killed or wounded, I felt unusually calm. The symptoms – shaking hands, pounding heart, and chilliness – that I normally associate with fear were replaced with an out-of-place serenity. Even against a backdrop of destruction and gunfire, liberated Tel Rifaat felt like home to me with all of its three-star flags and security checkpoints emptied of government soldiers.

When I was in Damascus a year ago, I was often followed by Bashar al-Assad’s Mukhabarat – military intelligence agents – and I experienced a perpetual state of near-death.

Damascus had always shared the beautiful smell of her jasmine blossoms with an omnipresent vibe of the regime’s tyranny. In every public place were the posters of Assad, his eyes always staring at me. Statues of the late Hafez al-Assad continued to haunt me even a decade after I had celebrated his death.

But after the start of revolution, it got much worse. The city I had once loved felt as I imagine North Korea or Hitler’s Germany. At any moment, I was ready to be detained for any number of reasons, and that would be just the start of an indescribably painful finale to my life. All of this fear was the consequence of simply speaking out against a regime that had oppressed my homeland for 40 years.

Tel Rifaat was different. There was not a single reminder that I was technically in a police state. Even in the midst of the TNT barrel’s deadly aftermath, Tel Rifaat felt like a place where I could live. The “free” in “Free Syria” was palpable: talking to kids in the street, or to armed rebels who were protecting the city, or the representatives of the local administrative councils.

Syrians, for the first time since I can remember, were thinking forward.

In Free Syria, death feels weightless compared to the oppression Syrians are used to, even as children die of hunger because Assad has stopped grain distribution and as families freeze to death because they have no heating fuel.

The bargain between death and dignity is one that everyone in Syria understands and that no Syrian regrets.

When Assad decided to unleash hell on his people, he was gambling that he could tear out their hope by crushing their families and communities. He did not realize that they had no hope left after his family’s 40-year rule.

“The Syrian Revolution may not have had the iconic leaders of other revolutions, but these demonstrations have had thousands leading them.” – Kenan Rahmani

Men spoke of raped daughters, and of slaughtered brothers as if it was a normal and calculated cost of dignity. Children spoke of their martyred fathers and uncles with pride and even joy, knowing that their fathers had died for them, and would be waiting for them in heaven.

One of the Friday demonstrations of our long revolution was called the “Friday of Death, but not Humiliation.” Many Syrians continue to call this movement the Revolution for Dignity.

The Syrian Revolution may not have had the iconic leaders of other revolutions, but these demonstrations have had thousands leading them.

I don’t know whether it is true or not, but people say they heard someone cry out at a demonstration, “Give me dignity, or give me death.”

If it’s true, whoever said it may have gotten both, and liberty as an added bonus.

NOTE: To become a Syria Witness and tell your own inside-Syria story, contact David Arnold, coordinator of our Syria Witness project at syriawitness(at)gmail.com. For safety reasons, we strongly urge you to use a browser-based e-mail (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail) and be sure “https” appears in the URL. You can also invite Arnold to Skype at davidarnold70.

David Arnold

David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.

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